Best of 2015
Whether it was tear-stained confessionals by Björk and Sufjan Stevens, love-struck pop bangers from Carly Rae Jepsen, or Kendrick Lamar’s outpourings of politically-focused fury, our favorite albums of 2015 have run the gamut of human emotions.
The Top 10
- Astounding as Medúlla, Volta and Biophilia are, the more high-concept Björk’s work becomes, the further removed we listeners can feel from the human being behind the artist. Perhaps that’s why this ninth album feels especially arresting. Dealing with the disintegration of her relationship with long-term partner Matthew Barney, Vulnicura sees Björk detailing her fears and sorrows with astonishing candor, while stripping back labyrinthine layers of instrumentation to a staple palette of clipped beats, minimalist electronics and heart-tugging strings. The result is an extraordinarily brave and beautiful record, and arguably her finest full-length release since 2001's Vespertine.
- Back in 2012, Claire Boucher’s disdain for perceived genre boundaries was genuinely revolutionary, and her penchant for blending seemingly-disparate styles made Visions one of the most influential records of the year. The fact that the Canadian producer’s eclectic approach is now common practice can’t help but remove some of the shock value from this follow-up, but only in the sense that we’re now prepared to expect the unexpected. Not only is Art Angels a more cohesive and consistently-melodic listen than Visions, it reaffirms Boucher’s status as a totally unique creative force. Seriously, who else but Grimes would even think to pair Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes with Dick Dale guitars ("Scream"), K-Pop with country music ("California") or EDM with dream-pop ("Realiti"), let alone pull it off with aplomb?
- Though not quite the albatross "Creep" was for Radiohead, the phenomenal success of Lonerism-single "Elephant" did bring Kevin Parker before a global audience, and made the name “Tame Impala” synonymous with swampy psych-rock. On his third LP, the Perth-born multi-instrumentalist delights in defying the expectations of his new-found fans. Replacing filthy guitar riffs with gauzy layers of spaced-out synth sounds – and largely driven by synthetic drum loops and soft-focus bass grooves – Currents offers a hallucinogen-laced take on funk, soul and disco. What’s most impressive here is how broad his songwriting range is, extending from the mind-expanding sprawl of "Let It Happen" to sensual slow jams like "Cause I’m A Man". Clearly, Parker is on the form of this life.
- Take the royalties and exposure out of the picture, and you often find that a multi-platinum-selling single can prove a poisoned chalice for emerging artists. Just ask Carly Rae Jepsen, whose phenomenally-successful breakout hit "Call Me Maybe" has overshadowed any material she’s produced since, largely because none of it has quite measured up to that unshakable earworm. Until now, that is, because Jepsen’s latest LP is so crammed full of killer hooks it makes selecting one standout track an utterly thankless task. Written in collaboration with Shellback, Sia, Greg Kurstin and Dev Hynes – and recorded with Haim-collaborator Ariel Rechtshaid – Emotion pairs voguish, 80s-style R&B production with timeless songwriting to quite magnificent effect. A pop classic in waiting.
- Dispelling the myth that braggadocio and solipsism are inseparable from major league rap, To Pimp A Butterfly finds Kendrick Lamar picking over personal struggles and societal injustice, to deliver an unflinching examination of what it means to be a black American in 2015. In the wake of the recent events in Ferguson and the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin (which is explicitly referenced on "The Blacker The Berry"), it’s no surprise that racial prejudice and police brutality loom large here. What might surprise the million-plus people who bought Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, is Lamar’s integration of esoteric musical influences to create ambitious, atypical arrangements, frequently rooted in free jazz and P-Funk. Combine these with the Compton rapper’s dexterous, deeply-inventive vocal delivery, and you have a dense yet richly-rewarding listen.
- After a 14-year break from recording, D’Angelo finally dropped the follow-up to Voodoo in the dying days of December 2014, with zero forewarning. It was an extraordinary entrance for an album so extraordinary that we’re still digesting it. From commentary on environmental issues ("Till It’s Done (Tutu)") and simmering racial tensions in the USA ("The Charade"), to songs deconstructing the cult of celebrity ("Back To The Future (Part I)"), Black Messiah’s lyrical depth is expertly matched by its complex, jazz-infused arrangements. The result is a meticulously-realized, neo-soul tour de force, that was more than worth the decade-and-a-half wait.
- During his time as a DIY artist, Abel Tesfaye could scarcely put a foot wrong. Maintaining that critical momentum long-term has proved a trickier task, thanks to the wildly mixed reviews his major label debut received. Kiss Land’s detractors won’t be assuaged by the lyrical content on this follow-up - which remains rooted in nihilistic, narcotics-fuelled sex - but they might well be by its musical pedigree. Boasting a duet with Lana Del Rey, a Kanye West production credit, and some impressively Michael Jackson-esque vocal turns from Tesfaye himself, Beauty Behind The Madness has the words “crossover success” ingrained in its grooves. "Can’t Feel My Face" deserves special commendation too, for joining "There She Goes" and "Perfect Day" in the pantheon of all-time great pop songs ostensibly about love, but probably about drugs.
- Briefly Fleet Foxes’ (somewhat-apathetic) drummer, Josh Tillman returned to his solo career in 2012, rechristening himself “Father John Misty” simply because he enjoyed the bizarre juxtaposition of imagery. This irreverent approach to nomenclature gives you a fair insight into Tillman’s songwriting style too. Ranging from the string-driven, Mariachi horn-flecked Americana of "Chateau Lobby #4" to the Harry Nilsson-style piano balladry of "Bored In The USA", this latest collection excels in its pairing of absurdly beautiful melodies with hilariously deadpan lyrics. The result is a record that feels reassuringly “classic” and thrillingly original at the same time.
- Hearing Brittany Howard howl "Hold on" for the first time was hairs-on-end stuff. Hearing those whisky-soaked tones afresh - after a two year absence - you’re still struck by their power, and yet her warm timbre has become comfortingly familiar. Without that initial “wow” factor to rely on for album number two, the quartet have made subtle modifications to their soulful, roots-rock sound to achieve a similar effect. Ranging from gentle hints of psychedelia to generous layers of funk, this broader sonic palette makes Sound & Color a richly rewarding listen, and one that builds beautifully on the strengths of 2012’s Boys & Girls.
- Speaking about his new album to Pitchfork, Sufjan Stevens stated, “This is not my art project; this is my life.” The moment "Death With Dignity" ripples through the speakers, you’ve no choice but to believe him. Dealing with the loss of his mother to cancer, and picking over the details of their complex relationship, Carrie & Lowell is as personal a record as you’ll hear in 2015, and likely one of the most beautiful too. Peeling back the ornate arrangements and dense electronics of 2010’s Age Of Adz, here Stevens largely relies on fragile, acoustic guitar arpeggios and tremulous vocals to relay his grief, frustration and fear. The results are simultaneously totally spellbinding and utterly heartbreaking.